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HASSO HERING

A perspective from Oregon’s mid-Willamette Valley

Mayors back Amtrak rail preference

Written April 15th, 2016 by Hasso Hering
Coast Starlight No 11 cruises through Albany, pretty much on time.

Coast Starlight No 11 cruises through Albany, pretty much on time.

With one exception caused by a thief in California, Amtrak trains have been arriving in Albany more or less on time this week. But the mayor is worried that a proposed change in federal regulation would weaken the law that says railroads must give passenger trains preference on their tracks.

On Monday Albany Mayor Sharon Konopa received the council’s consent to sign a letter protesting the change proposed by the Surface Transportation Board. Mayors Kitty Piercy of Eugene and Charlie Hales of Portland also signed. They see the proposed change as “detrimental to implementing our state and local goals regarding passenger rail service, carbon emission reductions, and increased economic vitality.”

Under railroad laws Congress passed in 1970 and later, freight railroads must give preference to passenger trains except in emergencies or when a railroad has received approval of an exception. The transportation board published a proposed rule it said would clarify what is meant by “preference.” Rail passenger interests across the country have opposed the change, saying it would jeopardize efforts by Amtrak trains to run on time.

So how are the trains stopping in Albany doing in terms of being on time? This month so far, two of the six state-supported trains in the Amtrak Cascades service have been 100 percent on time. Overall, the April on-time record of all six — as determined by arrival at Portland and Eugene, not their intermediate stops, was 88.3 percent.

The Coast Starlight’s record so far this month is about the same, 88.5 percent. The southbound Train No. 11 from Seattle stops in Albany at 4:10 p.m. and usually does so within a few minutes of that schedule. On Sunday it was three minutes early, and the longest it was late the other days was 14 minutes on Wednesday.

The scheduled 1:22 p.m. arrival of Train 14 from Los Angeles, with far greater distance to cover and more opportunities for disruptions, has been more variable. No. 14 was 7 minutes early on Monday, but the next day it got to Albany Station six hours and 10 minutes late. The other days this week, it was late between 19 and 48 minutes. To what extent freight operations by the Union Pacific had anything to do with routine delays did not show up on the Amtrak time-check website, but they had nothing to do with the problem on April 12.

I asked Bob Melbo at ODOT-Rail what he knew about the cause of Tuesday’s long delay. As usual, he had the facts: “Around 1:47 a.m. that morning No. 14 struck a pickup truck that was stuck on the track about 1 mile south of the Chico, CA, Amtrak station. The truck was not at a crossing, public or private, and it was loaded with tools and portable generators that had just been stolen from a fenced Union Pacific maintenance compound a short distance away. The truck was a 4×4 and the thief evidently was trying to exit the rail yard via a route that would not take him past any nearby residences where potential witnesses might be awake. When he saw the train approaching he abandoned his truck and fled on foot… No one was hurt on the train, nor was it damaged significantly, unlike the vehicle. The investigation with the police consumed an hour and a half, or so, and the Amtrak crew requested they be relieved… Likely it was the time necessary to call the relief crew on duty and then transport them the 75 miles from Sacramento to Chico that consumed the most time… Anyway, that incident penalized the train for 5 hours and 28 minutes. Later, signal problems around Texum, south of Klamath Falls, added another 37 minutes of delay.”

As for the Cascades trains Amtrak runs under contract with ODOT, ridership has been growing, Melbo reports. Through the first three months of 2016, ODOT counted 26,061 passengers, up 9 percent from the same period in 2015. The trains are state-funded through June 2017, and the legislature will be asked to keep them rolling when it meets next year. If you want to raise the likelihood that this gets done, add to the passenger count: Buy a ticket and get on the train. (hh)



9 responses to “Mayors back Amtrak rail preference”

  1. Gothic Albany says:

    That is better on time performance than the airlines, Go Amtrak!

    Sure wish the Cascades would stop in Woodburn, as that would save me a lot of freeway miles.

  2. Jim Clausen says:

    Wow, 26,061 passengers in 3 months… figuring 30 days per month that comes out to 289 riders per day… Since you didn’t mention how many trains run per day, I’m going to estimate 5 per day… that equals 57 passengers per train…

    I used to work in a shop right next to the train tracks… during break or lunch you would often see a passenger train go by… there were usually upwards of 5 cars per train… and rarely would you see more than 8 passengers per car… it was often much less…

    Your numbers confirm what I was seeing… that’s not much bang for the buck…

    I’m thinking, rather than have them ride a train that we already pay through the nose for, if we were to pay for a taxi ride for each of these passengers we’d be money ahead…

  3. hj.anony1 says:

    I have the pleasure of taking the Amtrak to Seattle and back from the Albany station once a year. Usually uneventful which is nice. The occasionally noisy kiddo or loud adult but you get that anywhere. The key is mental state. One must prepare to display patience! All the numerous stops along the way. Add that Woodburn stop …fine by me. Again it is all about consideration for others and patience.

    What needs more investigation is who has right of way! HH you write “Under railroad laws Congress passed in 1970 and later, freight railroads must give preference to passenger trains…..”

    Last year on my travels, the conductor said numerous times we were stopped for freight. Lengthy weight times I add! Four times our travels North were halted to a stop to allow BNSF freight to pass before we could resume our passage.

    This year (March 2016) was much smoother. Fewer stoppages and fewer annoying people!

    Hope I don’t scare anyone off from the rail because if you have time and PATIENCE….and uber fare it is the only way to go …to downtown Seattle.

    • Ray Kopczynski says:

      The scenery is fabulous in places too. Grab a book, relax, and enjoy a very pleasurable, stress-free journey!

  4. Bob Woods says:

    If you have ever been to Europe you know how great trains can be. Fast, frequent, comfortable and reasonably priced. In a few of weeks I’ll be on the Spanish AVE train which runs up to 192 MPH.

    It could be the same here, but it requires an investment in infrastructure. The railroads are making big money on freight and their best use of capital is to expand freight capacity, not provide passenger service. I get that.

    That means it’s up to government. New high speed tracks dedicated for passenger rail with 300+ MPH design capacity. We already own a lot of right of way with the interstate highway system, and nothing will get people out of their cars faster than tooling down the freeway at 70 MPH, only to be passed by a train going 200 MPH.

    The people of California funded a high-speed rail network by an initiative. It could happen here too.

  5. Bill Kapaun says:

    In your dreams Bob. The tracks that are capable of handling these speeds will cost many times the cost of the trains.
    They seem to avoid mentioning that cost.

  6. Bill Kapaun says:

    How do the more often used “AMTRAK buses” compare to “real” AMTRAK trains for on time performance?

    • Ray Kopczynski says:

      I’ve never seen an AMTRAK bus, but I have ridden an AMTRAK “Cascades” train many times. I doubt any bus would be remotely as comfortable.

      • Bill Kapaun says:

        Every time I’ve come back from PDX around 6-7 PM., it’s been a bus.
        You see them all the time Ray. You know the ones that say POINT something or other?

 

 
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